Indigenous Settlements of Australia
Australia: State of the Environment Second Technical Paper Series (Human Settlements), Series 2
Dr Paul Memmott and Mark Moran
Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2001
ISBN 0 642 54790 4
When comparing Indigenous and non-indigenous settlements, there are both diverse and acute differences in liveability and quality of lifestyle. There are a range of historical factors disadvantaging Indigenous people, resulting in a poor quality of lifestyle for most, and arising from the ongoing effects of colonisation, dispossession, disempowerment and successive policies and practices of past governments. On the basis of comparison based on a wide range of indicators, no other group in Australia experiences the same level of social, economic, health and educational disadvantage as Indigenous Australians (ABS 1999, Cat. No. 4704.0). These impacts have also been well-documented in the social and psychological problem areas (eg. Memmott et al 2000) and include poverty, low self-esteem, a poor sense of emotional and social well-being, welfare dependency, homelessness, high levels of family violence, suicide and substance abuse. A number of stressors will be outlined here that impact directly at the settlement scale.
The geographic distribution of these problems in Indigenous regions can be influenced by the above types of settlement patterns. There is often a contrast between discrete settlements which are 'dry' (no alcohol permitted), and dispersed urban and town camp settlements in rural centres with alcohol outlets where serious alcoholism, violence and anti-social behaviour may occur. Several of the negative aspects of lifestyle quality will now be discussed, selected due to their being partly attributable to settlement condition and/or location.
The micro-economy of Indigenous settlements are markedly different in comparison to non-indigenous settlements. This is a partly a reflection of the considerable economic disadvantage endured by the general Indigenous population. The unemployment rate amongst Indigenous people in 1996 was 25%, and is estimated to rise to 28% by 2006. For non-indigenous Australians, the unemployment rate is estimated to remain around the 1996 level of 8.5% into the near future (Taylor and Hunter 1998).
ATSIC (1998) has identified several constraints limiting Indigenous economic development:-
- There are limited economic opportunities in the rural and remote settlements where many Indigenous people live. This effect has not been confined to the Indigenous community as rural economies have declined across Australia and services have been withdrawn by both public and private sectors. Since people reside in these remote settlements because of their traditional and historical attachments to place and territory, they are often reluctant to shift for the sake of economic opportunity only.
- Indigenous people have limited access to business finance and support, in particular from the private sector.
- Indigenous people have comparatively low educational attainments with a consequent lack of business and job skills.
- The Indigenous social and cultural environment is characterised by traditional attachments to place and ties to family, clan and community. Management and decision-making structures which are appropriate in non-indigenous business ventures may not be entirely appropriate in Indigenous ones.
Customary subsistence economies persist and continue to be an important part of life in many Indigenous settlements, especially in rural and remote locations. Hunting, fishing and traditional arts and crafts help people supplement their income and are also central to cultural preservation. Nevertheless the customary subsistence economy of Indigenous people has suffered from a more sedentary lifestyle over recent decades.
Many Indigenous settlements are maintained by an Indigenous work force under ATSIC's Community Development Employment Programme (CDEP) whereby community members work for a basic government living allowance instead of receiving unemployment benefits. This Programme began in the late 1970s and now operates in many discrete and urban settlements. Core CDEP activities involve municipal activities such as gardening, rubbish collection and public transportation. CDEP workers are also involved in developing enterprises and providing recreational events such as rodeos, rock concerts and ceremonial performances. In 1996, one fifth of all Indigenous workers were engaged on CDEP. In the absence of the CDEP scheme, the unemployment rate for Indigenous people would have actually been 41% in 1996 and could be expected to rise to 48% in 2006 (Taylor and Hunter1998).
Opportunities for employment and enterprise improve closer to rural and urban centres. Torres Strait Islanders have somewhat improved socio-economic characteristics, although they remain clearly disadvantaged relative to the total population (Taylor and Gaminratne 1992). Industries in which Indigenous people in Queensland are employed include tourism and the arts, fishing and aquaculture, mining and the pastoral industry, and natural resource management (Queensland Government 1998).
There is often little flow of external capital into Indigenous settlements, either in the way of investment or trade. Rather the cash economy is dominated by the flow of public funds in the form of Government grants and welfare payments. These return a limited circulation in the communities.
Given the above economic conditions, the possibility of discrete Indigenous settlements across Australia reaching some measure of economic independence appears extremely limited, with some few exceptions where returns are received from mining ventures. Indeed, questions have been raised about the ability of remote communities to even afford to operate and maintain infrastructure and housing that has been provided through capital works programs (Federal Race Discrimination Commissioner 1994.)
Health, Infrastructure and Service Delivery
The poor status of Indigenous health is widely publicised and it is now well established that environmental conditions play a major contributing role to this alarming problem. However professional research to understand the linkages between poor health and settlement characteristics only commenced as isolated case studies in the mid 1970s (see discussion in Memmott 1991A:151-154). An in-depth regional analysis to the problem was carried out in the Pitjantjatjara homeland settlements in the mid-1980s (Nganampa et al 1987) and the methodological approach of their researchers has since been applied and consolidated in this region and now continues in other parts of Australia (eg. Pholeros et al 1993). Simultaneously ATSIC has maintained a number of programmes aimed at upgrading settlement environments as a primary health strategy eg. the Health Infrastructure Priority Projects (HIPP) and National Aboriginal Health Strategy (NAHS).
There are also problems with the delivery of health and education services to discrete settlements, many of which are located in remote settings A recent survey of 1,291 Indigenous discrete settlements (ABS 1999, Cat. No. 4710.0) highlighted the following problems with infrastructure and service delivery in these places:-
(i) Although only 1% of all communities (including outstations) reported they had no organised water supply, 35% of communities with a population greater than 50 reported they had experienced water restrictions in the 12 months prior to the survey. 12% of communities reported water restrictions on five or more occasions. The water supply in 25% of discrete communities (with a population greater 50 and not connected to town supply) failed water quality testing at least once in the 12 months prior to the survey.
(ii) 14% of all discrete communities (including outstations) had no permanent dwellings. 29% of housing stock was reported to be in need of major repair or replacement.
(iii) 10% of all communities (including outstations) had no power supply. 46% of discrete communities with populations greater than 50, experienced power interruptions five or more times in the 12 months prior to the survey. 16% reported power interruptions on 20 or more occasions.
(iv) Less than 2% of dwellings across all communities (including outstations) were not connected to a sewerage scheme. 59% of discrete communities with populations greater than 50 reported overflows or leakages of their sewerage system in the 12 months prior to the survey.
(v) 40% of discrete communities with populations greater than 50 had road access cut for a period of one day or more over 12 months prior to the survey. 11% reported road access had been cut for a continuous period of three months or more. (ABS 1999, Cat. No. 4710.0.)
(vi) Although 87% of the population living in discrete communities had a primary school located within ten kilometres of community, only 46% has access to grade 10 and 21% access to grade 12.
(vii) For 54% of the population living in discrete communities, the nearest hospital was at a distance of 100 kilometres or more. However, most of this population (86%) had access to emergency air medical services and 90% of the population was located within 25 kilometres from the nearest first aid clinic.
(viii) Those discrete communities with a population greater than 50 were most likely to have a daily access to either a female (60%) or male (47%) health worker. Nurses were available to 52% of discrete communities on a daily basis, and to a further 24% on a weekly or fortnightly basis. While a high proportion of communities had some form of access to a doctor (64% fortnightly or more frequently), only 9% had such access on a daily basis.
Figure 20. An analysis of potential damage and failure to the infrastructure system in a remote discrete Indigenous desert settlement, which in turn would have an adverse impact on environmental health.
Source: (From Pholeros 1991:28.)
Homelessness in the Indigenous context is a multi-layered and multi-dimensional concept which differs from non-indigenous homelessness in its context and causes. A higher proportion of Indigenous people are affected by homelessness than non-indigenous people.
Five distinct types of Indigenous homelessness have been recently identified in Indigenous Australia:
(1)Lack of access to any stable shelter, accommodation or housing - literally having 'nowhere to go' - which is regarded as the worst form of homelessness.
(2)Spiritual forms of homelessness, which relate to separation from traditional land or from family.
(3)Crowding, where it causes considerable stress to families and communities.
(4)Relocation and transient homelessness, which results in temporary, intermittent and often
cyclical patterns of homelessness due to transient and mobile lifestyles, but also to the necessity
of a larger proportion of the Indigenous population (relative to the non-indigenous population)
having to travel to obtain services.
(5) Individuals escaping an unsafe or unstable home for their own safety or survival is another form of
homelessness affecting large numbers of Indigenous people, especially women and young people (Keys Young 1998:iv).
Lack of access to secure and affordable housing has recently been identified as the major systemic factor which is severely impacting upon Indigenous homelessness. Indigenous Australians live in more crowded conditions and in a poorer standard of housing in comparison to non-indigenous Australians. They face considerable difficulty in being able to access housing in the private rental market due to poverty and high levels of unemployment, discrimination, and in some areas, a lack of private rental housing stock. (Keys Young 1998:v.)
Given transitional lifestyles, cultural obligations and the necessity for a substantial proportion of the Indigenous population to travel to urban centres in order to access services, there is a considerable need for affordable, temporary accommodation. Notwithstanding the existence of 135 Aboriginal hostels across the country, a shortage of culturally appropriate short-term accommodation is contributing to considerable homelessness. (Keys Young 1998:v.) Associated with such homelessness in regional centres and capital cities, are often 'at-risk' lifestyles involving alcohol and drug abuse, family violence and poor nutrition and health care.
Due to widespread poverty amongst the Indigenous population and other cultural values concerning possessiveness and consumerism, the proportion of Indigenous people owning or buying their own house has always been considerably lower than for the mainstream. However between 1991 and 1996, census analysis indicates the proportion of Indigenous home owners and buyers rose from 28 to 31%. This compares to 70% of the non-indigenous population in 1996. Indigenous home ownership is most common in the south-eastern States. (Jones and Kent 1999:6.)
A much greater proportion of Indigenous people live in rental housing. However this is usually public or community rental housing, owned and administered by government housing departments or Indigenous housing co-ops and associations ABS 1999, Cat. No. 4704.0, Fig. 2.17). Indigenous people still experience significant discriminatory barriers when trying to access the private rental sector, although there is a shortage of in-depth research on this problem (FOCUS P/L 2000).
Home ownership is currently not an option for people living on community title land, due to restrictions on the tenure found on most discrete Indigenous settlements. A recent survey (Moran et al, 2001) was conducted at four discrete settlements in Queensland which revealed diverse understandings, aspirations and concerns for home ownership. Given the complexity involved, the Queensland Government is proceeding cautiously with the feasibility and design of a possible home ownership scheme for these communities.
The presence of such barriers contributes to the pattern of circulation within Indigenous regions whereby families move to and fro between urban centres and discrete Indigenous controlled settlements.